With a cast headed by Amy Adams making her West End debut, you’d be forgiven for imagining the latest production of Tennessee Williams’ play “The Glass Menagerie” might be everything you’d expect of a nicely upholstered revival. Not so fast. Director Jeremy Herrin is faithful to multiple elements of Williams’ stage directions — including a screen of accompanying images above the action — but he aims to deliver the play’s essence in unexpected ways. Stripping away almost all props and laying bare the staging mechanics, he’s attempting to expose and enhance the play’s essence. Does he succeed? Yes and no.
Herrin splits the character of Tom in two with a pensive, near mournful Paul Hilton as a reflective older narrator and a faintly exasperated Tom Glynn-Carney as young Tom, aching to escape the claustrophobia of the family home and the shoe warehouse where he works. The production is taking the narrator’s opening address fully to heart: “I am the opposite of a stage magician.” Instead of presenting illusion with the appearance of truth, Tom says, “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
To that effect, Herrin, designer Vicki Mortimer and lighting designer Paule Constable refuse to create a standard study in nostalgia. Instead, surrounding an open-sided rectangular platform dressed with little but a display cabinet for Laura’s titular menagerie, the narrator sets up the proceedings by wandering through faded clutter to start an old reel-to-reel tape recorder and touch the keys of a dusty, old upright piano to set off Nick Powell’s tender soundscape.
Exposing the elements of Williams’ stagecraft and making the audience unusually conscious of them puts pressure on the actors to deliver without the assistance of cunningly hidden and supportive stage effects. Which is not to say that the production doesn’t have techniques of its own. Constable’s strongly directional lighting, including everything from industrial size lamps set about the stage to a handheld flashlight, almost totally replaces the expected burnished gold of memory with a more soured sepia. This is demonstrably a past of difficulty and sadness as much as it is of lost, familiar happiness.
With her trademark charm to the fore, Adams is a good fit for Amanda, the mother struggling to keep up appearances and secure her daughter’s future. She also (mercifully) holds back on the Southern belle cliché, which often leads to overly clotted interpretations. Like everything in the production, her performance is restrained and slow-burn, only blossoming into full-flown fantasy with her appearance in her old gown in readiness for the climactic appearance of the Gentleman Caller.
But with her voice querulous rather than grounded, Adams appears weightless. She’s nicely responsive to shifts of character, changing moods and the needs of a scene. But, robbed of the camera, she expresses but doesn’t radiate emotion to heat up the stage as Amanda needs to do.
Glynn-Carney is perfectly restless but the character’s longing is missing — which is partly the result of splitting the character in two. It’s also notable that the production doesn’t highlight Tom’s sexuality, which, in a play as wildly autobiographical as this, is most definitely a choice.
The most unexpected performance is that of Victor Alli as Jim. The accent on his character is traditionally more “gentleman” than “caller.” But instead of being winningly well-mannered, Alli finds more humor than most by playing up his insensitivity. Only toward the end of the key scene with Laura does he find true tenderness and the shift in his understanding is all the more touching because of that earlier selfish pride.
But the revelation of the night is Lizzie Annis as a startlingly open-book Laura. Herrin places her downstage so we watch her overhear her mother verbally bludgeoning her brother: “Go to the movies, go! Don’t think about us, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job!” Annis’ painfully stifled cry of recognition, not just of herself but of them all, rips through the silent auditorium. Instead of playing the victim, Annis digs down to find flashes of hope in the role. Her face defiantly and affectingly upturned as she struggles between self-knowledge and hard-won optimism, her every thought is legible.
Her scene with Jim is, rightly, the emotional heart of the play, and Annis’ outstanding, unsentimental stage debut is spellbinding. If only the intelligent, well-intentioned production allowed it to resonate fully into the surrounding story.